Archive for category Peripatetic Prattle (Weislogel)
Worth considering: Philosopher Scott Soames argues that  philosophy’s recent history has been much more impressive than its critics would have you believe, and  philosophy is best done in a university setting, rather than in the public square.
Soames is generally irenic (so long as the grumbling parties are fairly connected to the Anglo-analytic methods he favors). He does not take too seriously the fad of logical positivism in the 20th century, and he does not limit legitimate philosophical interest to any one are of exploration (e.g., he does not dismiss moral philosophy as a going concern). On the contrary, he argues that real advances have been made across the board, and that this is mainly thanks to philosophy’s having been disciplined by the modern research academy. This is no argument, however, for philosophy’s being arcane or divorced from concerns of non-professional philosophers. There is much to consider in this essay.
The impetus for this piece was another that appeared in the NYT “The Stone” philosophy column by Bob Frodeman and Adam Briggle, which argued that philosophy lost its way when it morphed into just another academic discipline (one with science-envy). I confess, I’ve seen it in much the same way as Frodeman and Briggle, and having just re-read their piece I generally still do.
It makes me wonder: Is there just *one* thing that philosophy is? Or is term “philosophy” like term “religion” — a blanket term that (legitimately?) covers widely divergent practices? Is the philosophy for the public square (or philosophy-as-a-way-of-life) “the same thing” as the philosophy done in academic settings and disciplinary practices? If not, is there at least a possibility for a mutually enriching intersection or overlap? Philosophers themselves have been notoriously argumentative about what counts as philosophy at all (for instance, the Derrida affair). Often they divide up their “orthodox” and their “heterodox” and their outright “heathen dogs.” Maybe that’s just part of the game.
But I know I do more than one thing as a philosopher…or maybe I am more than one thing as a philosopher. What and how I teach (and to what end) is not the same (exactly) as what I do when I write a journal article or a book review on a technical issue in, say, ontology. And I don’t think, as a philosopher (not as a philosopher professor), that I am ever “off the clock.” Perhaps I am large and contain multitudes. But why not be large and why not try to contain multitudes? Frodeman/Briggle and Soames. Why not?
I just this moment got a notification from WordPress that I started this blog 7 years ago today. Where does the time go?
It hasn’t always gone to blogging, that I can tell you. But I have been somewhat consistent over all these years in spouting off about this or that. Lately, as you might be able to tell, I’ve had the itch to put a lot more out there for your reading enjoyment and possible enlightenment (or, if I’ve messed up somewhere, endarkenment). I hope this little writing itch will continue, mainly because as I’ve preached to my students for decades, writing is not simply taking dictation from your head. We write to find out what we think, and I for one am certainly interested in finding out what I think. I hope that there might be something in that for you, too, but there are no guarantees.
If you have looked in from time to time, thanks! I hope all is well with you and continues to be so!
A thought: What if it is all about nothing? One big Seinfeld episode?
Yeah, nothing. Marx, in his XI thesis on Feuerbach said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” What if that is wrong? What if that is not the point? Not to say that one can’t change or try to change the world in one way or another, only to say that this is not the point of it all.
And suppose that is right…does that mean it is all about nothing? What if Marx is wrong on both points? What if the point is actually to interpret the world?
If that is right, then almost everybody misses the point. People interpret, on a daily basis, aspects of the world that are of their immediate concern, of course. But hardly anyone interprets the world.
Maybe they should?
Then the point would be to change the world, would it not?
Because, as I’ve said, hardly anyone does interpret the world. And if it is right to say we all should – that the point is to interpret the world – then it implies this interpretation (that hardly anyone is interpreting the world) demands that we change it. And I am not sure that the point is to change the world.
So the point is not to interpret the world; the point is not to change the world; so what is the point?
Maybe there is not point at all….
Can you live like that?
I think, really, almost all of us do. Almost all of us do not live and act as if the world has a point. Again, I don’t think this implies that no one finds any meaning in anything, only that the whole thing is without meaning. Stop anyone on the street and ask what is the point of it all. Hardly anyone will have an answer (besides a pious Evangelical). But that does not mean they are all “living lives of quiet desperation.”
Is the point not moral? Are there not moral demands?
Again, I am willing to guess that most people are “regionally moral,” so to speak. They are concerned that their spouses and bosses and kids and plumbers and so on act morally, and at least because of that concern they try to act morally themselves. But they do not do all that might be considered a moral imperative.
What do you mean?
I mean most people give no thought to where their jeans are made, for instance. And of the ones that do know, the overwhelming majority wear them anyway…even though those jeans are made under conditions that it would be nearly impossible to call just.
I see your point…
…I just don’t know how to interpret it.
Look, I am considering the idea that morality is chimerical. The “shoulds” in life are phony. Even the ones that you might sentimentally want to hang on to…helping the poor, the downtrodden, the widows and orphans. The truth is that we’re all as good as dead. Nothing can change that.
So you are saying that because we are mortal we are not obligated to be moral?
I am saying you are not obligated to be moral. You decide to be moral (sometimes out of fear of reprisal, which moral philosophers will remind you is not moral).
So you can just treat anyone however you want?
You already do.
But some people treat others like dirt.
But they shouldn’t.
You’ve chosen to be moral…but why haven’t they?
Because they…are…I don’t know…bad?
They are bad?
Yeah, bad. Bad people. Mean people.
And they shouldn’t be bad or mean?
No! Of course not!
What is that?
Because it’s, um, bad to be bad.
Okay. But you see what you are doing? You have decided that there are some ways that are bad and some ways that are not bad and then you decide that all people ought to agree with you. You are bringing in an abstracted point of view.
So what? My point of view is abstracted from our human propensities to greed, violence, and all -around shittiness. It is abstracted from what is in order to see what ought to be.
And what grounds this view? On what ground are you standing so you can see this? Holy ground?
Do I have to give you a lesson in the history of moral philosophy? There are lots of grounds that philosophers have offered that, while differing from each other, all end up in the same place: don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t treat others unjustly. It is a cumulative argument. If you deny the great weight of that cumulative argument, you are forced to say that stealing and lying and injustice are not bad.
Actually, I don’t think they are necessarily bad. They are possibly bad. And honesty, respect for property rights, and giving each his due is not necessarily good. They are frequently good, but not always good.
On what grounds to you distinguish “good” from “bad”?
On what pleases me, in the end.
Really?! That’s it?
I think, after having given it some thought, that’s it.
Is there or is there not authority?
There appears to be authority….
Yes, but is it real? Is it legitimate?
Is this a Habermasian question?
Here’s what I’m driving at: there is the constant temptation to anarchy, the denial of authority.
Is that what anarchy is?
That’s a good enough understanding for the moment. Lots of people set them up as authorities over others, but my question is whether that is ever legitimate?
Why are you wondering this?
I am an egomaniac. It’s all about me. I want to know whether I can live a meaningful, authentic, decent life in the current situation. I live in a beautiful home, modest by some standards, palatial by others. I have a very flexible work schedule, doing a job I mostly love, that may very likely be meaningful. But I am afforded this relative luxury because I lucked out. I was born into a system that made it possible for me to have all this, but the system makes it possible for me to have all this only by immiserating multitudes of others. This misery is produced in a way that I almost never witness it. But too late! I know it is going on now. So the question is: can I live knowing that my relative ease is possible only because others suffer?
I don’t see how you can.
No, not really. Look to your left. Look to your right. All around you, life goes on. You are like Arjuna. This is your fate. This is your destiny. There is the truth all around you, but that truth does not tell you what to do…at least it does not demand that you do things differently. Clearly, it is not demanding that, because when you close this laptop you will enjoy a beer on your deck, watch the Phillies on tv, pet your cats, kiss your wife when she gets home from her equally privileged life which she is not questioning like you are, and you will forget about these questions for a while. And you will sleep in relative peace.
Are you saying, tough shit for the losers of the world?
Are you saying you can picture a world wherein there are no losers? The truth of it is there have been winners and losers since there have been humans – even before, in a sense, because the whole of natural history could be understood in terms of winners and losers. Evolution, creative destruction.
Wow. Social Darwinism?
That’s a construction. That’s an attempt to absolve yourself of your responsibilities for your life and for your world. It is just not as simple as that. Nevertheless, you find the feathers of beautiful birds on the ground beneath your feeders, feeders you put out to help nurture the birds of your neighborhood, feeders that attract both birds and their predators – which are also birds, I might add.
But humans are different.
We have reason. We are moral beings. We can decide well or poorly how to handle our appetites and desires. We are responsible for our actions in a way a raptor is not.
I’m not so sure. I think our rationality is a way of doing exactly what raptors do. It is a tool to help us survive, to thrive. Thinking is our way of eating the small birds, if you will. If push came to shove, would you not do whatever it takes to save yourself and your family?
Yes, if only my own cowardice did not get in the way.
That’s my point. You are thinking that because life is peaceful and good at the moment for you, you have the luxury of considering the plight of the poor, the downtrodden, the losers. You feel, since you know the cause (do you??) of their plight, you are obliged to do something about it. And the “something” is supposed to be obvious – but is it? Is it marching in protest? Taking hostages? What? Can it not be teaching? Can it not be showing others what is going on? Is everyone supposed to be a warrior (because that is what it’d take to change things)? Nope. Put it this way. Your “penance,” call it that, is to witness the suffering, to have some idea (however imperfect) of the causes of it, and to have to think about it, and live with the fact that you will continue to live a nice life (perhaps) in the face of all that. It is already a kind of suffering.
You are talking nonsense.
No. The poor campesino suffers. The residents of Kandahar suffer. The sweatshop workers suffer. And perhaps even the stinking rich capitalists suffer, just not in the way you do. All is suffering. And also joy. You have no idea how much joy can be had in a war zone, a barrio, a favela, a shantytown.
I don’t want to know.
See? That’s what I’m talking about. It’s good enough here, now…isn’t it? You fool around writing notes to yourself, read books on revolutionaries and spies, basically just watch the days go by in relative good health with a nice wife and loving family. Why be ungrateful for that?
But I am grateful for all of this.
No you are not. You are – as always – looking for a way out…or at least wondering what it’d be like not to be here, not to be you. You know, though, deep down you do get it. You get what you are all about. You play dilettante with joining this or that, converting to this or that. But the truth of it is you get it: you are just you. This life is the right life for you because it is yours. You aren’t a catholic, a conservative, a communist, a revolutionary, a mogul, a warrior, a hero, scholar (even). You are a guy who likes to go for a walk, eat, drink, and (if you’d let yourself) be merry, read some books, have some fantasies, listen to some music, learn a few things. That’s it. That’s just it. That’s why you never commit to anything. As soon as you try it enough, you realize it’s not you and you move on. Because “you” aren’t any of those things. You are already you, and there is nothing particularly different you need to do to become you…because you are already you.
I’m already me.
And who is that?
You are the guy who asks, who am I. That’s you. That what you do. That is your reason for being, your raison d’être. Sisyphus pushed the boulder up the hill just to have it roll down again. Yours is not to do or die; yours is to reason why. That’s what you do. When you try out these conversions, all that is is an attempt to get a fuller view, a broader perspective, to ask the questions from a different angle. It is not a serious attempt at conversion. Your misery is produced because of a faulty presupposition. You think you are supposed to find the thing you are supposed to be but are not, and then to become that thing. But that is just a bad presupposition. You are a philosopher, brother. That means questions, not answers. Yes, people want answers. They ask questions in order to get answers. Even you want answers…but not in your professional capacity, not according to your vocation, your calling. To be authentically you is to dwell in the questions. Yes, that makes you a Hamlet, a coward, a neither-fish-nor-fowl, an in-between-er, an all-over-the-map-er. Tough luck if you don’t like it, but there it is.
So are you absolving me of responsibility for global injustice?
Do I look like the Pope? And did you hear the question you just asked? Seriously?
So I go back to sleep, forget I saw how this sausage of a reality got made and just try to have as much fun as I can before the axe falls?
And that’s bad because…?
But won’t other people look at me as some kind of a hypocrite, a coward?
Yes, some will. And you know what? It’ll be like they’re looking in a mirror. Because none of them is pure. None. What revolutionaries do you know? Members of philosophy faculties? Hah! Perhaps your protesting sister-in-law?
Hey, leave her out of this. She’s an excellent person! She means very well.
Sure she does. She is an excellent person. But my point is that it is as much about cobbling together a meaningful life for her as it is for the artist that gives up family and fortune for the sake of his work or the captain of industry who has all the money in the world and still despises the fact that he couldn’t just play baseball like he wanted to. It is all a big play. Don’t take it so seriously. The end is always the same: you die. So if you want my advice…
…just look at it more like a comedy than a tragedy. It is a very good thing that bombs are not going off all around you. It might happen that they will sometime, and then you’ll have to deal with it. But no sense stirring that up needlessly.
But there is a need.
Bombs here, bombs there. There’ll be bombs. Always have been. “The poor you will always have with you” – I have that on good authority. If we cure cancer you can bet there’ll be a new virus that’ll get us. Or we’ll slit our own wrists when we just don’t die of old age. It ends the same: you die. Stop fucking worrying.
No need to be crude.
Yes, need. Because you have to snap out of this. Here’s how: write a book, put it all in there, the philosophers, the hypocrites, the saints, the sinners, the warriors, the cowards. Put it all in there. It won’t be a good book at all if all of the characters are good and there are no injustices, right? Real snooze, that’d be. Well, guess what? Life is like that exactly. So write a book about life, real life, this life. The one with all the shit you are focused on AND the sweetness, too. Otherwise, you’ll be lying. Lying novels suck.
What about teaching philosophy?
Look, I think you have it. I think what you’ve been doing the past couple of years is really getting into the right space. All the ambiguity, the richness. It is really a good space. Learn from yourself. Stop being like your teenage students. You know that Wallace Shawn piece, “Why I Call Myself a Socialist”? You know how he says that actors on stage are not “faking” it, that they’re really finding truths about themselves in their “acting,” and realizing that their off-stage life is also acting in various roles? That’s the ticket. You are “acting” the role of a philosopher, true. But there is also deep truth in your living out that role in your authentic way (which I really think you are getting into…). It is not just “fake.” It is both real and fake, both being and seeming. And all of it is always like that. And then you die.
You keep bringing up death when I haven’t.
Because you need that memento mori sign before your eyes at all times. It focuses the mind.
Isn’t that morbid?
Weirdly, life is morbid (aimed at death), but the thought is the opposite. It is aimed at life. Because only the living can be aware of and remember its mortality. When the living forgets its mortality it becomes oblivious to its vitality…i.e., it’s as good as dead. It starts sleepwalking through its roles, forgetting they are roles, thinking it coincides with those roles. But life is in the différance, between “life” and “death”, coinciding with neither.
Sounds heavy. Sheer heaviosity.
Hey, laugh if you will! That’s my point: laugh.
It’s a comedy.
All the wars and sweatshops and oligarchy and poverty?
Yep. Hard pill to swallow, isn’t it?
Swallow it anyway.
But what will people think?
They’ll think it’s a fucking joke…at least they will if they know what’s good for them.
So do nothing?
No, do what you are doing: asking questions.
Is it? Your job is to ask and ask and ask. That is your mission.
But I want answers, too.
Tough luck. Not to be. Just like you won’t play point guard in the NBA, lead guitar on the big stage, or even professor emeritus at Harvard. Just like you won’t get to hold your own flesh and blood child in your arms. Just like you won’t get to be Pope. Just like you won’t sit on the Supreme Court. Just like you won’t speak fluent Mandarin. Just like you won’t get elected President of the USA. Just like you won’t be a Navy SEAL. Just like you won’t be a martyr for Jesus. Just like you won’t be a revolutionary. Just like you won’t be a Hassid, a hacker, or a haberdasher. You are a philosopher and a philosopher asks questions and that’s that. Deal with it.
You mean I don’t get a choice?
No. You no longer get a choice.
You mean I had a choice?
I don’t know, but I know you don’t have one any more.
That’s crazy. I could chuck all this…the adjunct teaching, the books, the blog…all this shit and get a job in industry and make some real money and learn Mandarin on the side.
Sure you can, sure you can. Let’s see you try….
So, anyway, I’m thinking that I am missing something.
Yeah, okay, I am missing some things. But I mean “missing” like “nostalgic” for something. There was something that used to be but that now is not. And I miss it.
What is it?
I don’t remember.
Well, I mean, that’s just it: I am missing something that once was but now is not, but because it is not, I don’t remember what it is. That’s how much I miss it.
So how do you even know you miss it?
Well, I don’t know I miss it, but I feel I am missing it. I feel the nostalgia. A longing, a yearning. It is philosophical. It is…mystical? Is that the right word?
You tell me…it’s your yearning.
Okay, so, religion: I miss it…but not actual religion, which I don’t miss.
You miss virtual religion?
Yeah, I virtually miss it. I just don’t actually miss it. I want what was “inside” but I don’t want the husk.
Is there an inside without an outside?
Is there an intimate without an “extimate”?
What really matters?
Nothing really matters? Or nothing really matters? Or nothing really matters!?
Well, I’m just trying to get at what you mean when you say that “nothing really matters.”
What I mean is this: we are born, who knows why; we live for a while—maybe a short while, maybe a long while, but only a while; then we die, leaving it all (whatever that will have been) right where we left it. So, given our lack of immortality, nothing ultimately really matters. Things might matter or seem to matter during our sojourn here. But that is about it.
Should I feel negatively about this insight of yours?
Feel whatever you want.
Well, okay, but I am soliciting advice. Assuming that your insight is correct, then what’s life all about? If it doesn’t really ultimately matter what I do, whether I help or hurt others, whether I am ambitious or lackadaisical, what would you advise me to take up as a stance, if you will, towards life?
Well, how about this: This life might be best thought of as a play or a game in which you are a player no matter whether you like it or not. It seems to have a way or at least some finite number of ways about it in which you can make your play in it not completely unbearable. Find those ways, go with that flow. Don’t misunderstand: I mean go with that flow, not just the way any flow happens to go. Find the way, then go with that flow as best you can.
Vague advice. Thank you.
You’re welcome. But it’s a vague game.
So absurdism? Surrealism? Existentialism?
Maybe, sort of…but I wouldn’t look at it quite like that. That way of trying to look at things implies that one of those ways is the best or most valid or most accurate way of thinking about life. I don’t really think that’s right, even given my profound insight that nothing matters. Nothing matters, but everything is important…or at least it can be important. To me, to you, to people we love. Cosmically, of course, it just is all going to go the way I said. Me, you, all we love…all will be gone in the blink of an eye. But why should that matter? It matters not at all to our way while we’re all here. That fact, in other words, matters just as little as whether I become a great scholar, the President of the United States, or a bull-fighter…cosmically speaking. If you are waiting for some external touchstone to make itself known so you can know how you are doing, forget it! In fact, that is more than just futile. It’s bad. Bad for you, bad for me, bad for the ones you love.
I don’t get it.
Look, let’s say you want to do well by the ones you love – of course you do! What would that take? A deep relationship with the cosmos and eternity? Wow! If those you love have to wait around for you to get settled with that, they may find it better to push on without you. What it takes, rather, is a deep relationship with them for no further reason at all! In fact, if you do have some “reason” for that relationship, then, well, it’s all a little suspect, don’t you think? Is it because they pay your rent or do your laundry or look good on your arm at cocktail parties? How profound!
Okay, love is without why. I get it. But I can’t just sit around gazing at those I love and just emote love in their direction all day long. I have to do something. Right?
I guess. Sure…you have to do something.
Okay, so what do I do?
Why are you asking me?
I am asking you because that’s what we’re having a conversation about. A conversation about life’s direction.
Can life have a direction regardless of what you do? Is life waiting around for you to do something so it can have a direction?
Are you saying that our choices of actions have no bearing on life’s direction?
But what if life’s direction is about the fact that we choose and not about what we choose?
That cannot be right. Whether I choose to be a scholar or I choose to be a thief matters.
It won’t matter is 100 years…or 500…or 100,000 years.
No, but it will matter now. It is not just that I can choose one or the other. It is that I choose the one and not the other.
What about this choice: What if you had to choose either to be a physician or to be a painter? Would that matter?
Yes, I suppose.
Okay, so what do you choose?
Well, what am I good at?
Are you saying that one should always do what one is good at?
It can be a guide towards bliss, can’t it.
I guess. But couldn’t it also be a pathway to servitude?
Suppose you are good at math. Everyone always tells you that you are good at math. They always buy you a nice gift when you come home with an A in math. You are recruited to become an actuary because you are good at math. Actuaries get paid well and have excellent job security. Why would you not be an actuary? Except, you’d rather be a dancer. You are not as good at dancing as you are at math. The job prospects for dancers are horrible compared to those for actuaries. But you love dancing. You want to be a dancer. What do you do?
I see your point. I guess you have to have a job.
You have to have a job?
So long as you are living in this NON-utopia, you need a job.
Okay, physician or painter?
Painters don’t have the best job prospects.
Let’s say you have a patron who will provide for you. You might not get as much as a physician makes, but you will not starve. Which do you choose?
Am I a better doctor or painter?
You are equally talented.
Then I guess I become a doctor. Wait! I like being a doctor, right?
Yes, let’s say you like being a doctor.
Okay, I would pick physician.
I would help more people.
So one should always pick the path that helps more people.
What if you love to dance but can only tolerate being a physician, even though you are very good at being a physician?
I pick physician.
What if you love to dance but can’t really say you like doctoring at all, except that you are still good at it?
I pick physician.
So no matter what, one should take the path that helps the most people.
Does dancing help anyone?
Not like a physician.
Physicians help sick people (or at least they try). Don’t dancers and other artists help people, both sick and well, to enjoy life, to see more deeply into reality, and so on?
Are you saying that artists are just as “socially useful” as physicians?
Yes. And trash collectors and farmers and firefighters. I am saying that your measure for determining which path to take is flawed. It might help you choose physician over thief, but it is no use for almost every other choice.
So how does one make the choice?
Talent, bliss, fellow-feeling, care and concern, worldly comfort (loosely construed), concrete possibilities. But there is not really any big-picture stance from which to judge these situations.
I think you are depressing me.
Oh, I hope not! I think I am trying to get you to feel liberated. The depression that you think you feel is coming from a removable source. Remove it, and you will feel freer.
What is the source?
I should write the CorpScrew Letters. What would it be good for the corporate devils to have us think, feel, believe?
Here’s a thought it would be good for Uncle CorpScrew to advise his younger Tempters to promote: That politics doesn’t matter, that it is, in fact, evil. That would be very Orwellian. It would get people thinking that politics = government, and government = pernicious meddling in our lives, and thus by the transitive property of equality, that politics = pernicious meddling in our lives. Because if we can believe that, then we will find ourselves defending CorpScrew’s minions around the world, helping to “keep government of our backs” and by “our backs” I mean “corporations’ backs” and not our backs. We will be useful idiots.
It would be good to get people to think that “useless” means “worthless.”
It would be good to have people be confounded by, at turns, thinking the world they see is exactly the world as it is and is meant to be AND that we have no access to the world as it is and as it is meant to be and so what anyone says about it is simply mere opinion. They wouldn’t know whether to cry or wind their watch.
It would be good to get people to think that there are only big problems.
It would be good to get people to think that there are either no solutions to big problems or that there are only big solutions to big problems.
It would be good to get people to think that there is nothing beyond death and that death is bad. This will get a lot of people killed.
For those who persist in thinking that there is something beyond death, it would be good to get them to think that this means they need take no notice of what’s happening now. This will help get a lot of people killed, as well.
Sometimes, it starts to seem simple.
Everything. All of it.
Yeah. Sometimes I think I see the simple pattern of all the struggles that our common life together seems to bring.
Yes. Let me explain. I read the following sentences in a book:
In what measure and by what means can individuals accept themselves as mortal without any imaginary instituted compensation; in what measure can thought hold together the demands of the identitary logic which are rooted in the Legein and the exigencies of what is (which is surely not identitary without becoming for that reason incoherent); in what measure, finally and especially, can society truly recognize in its institution its own self-creation, recognize itself as institution, auto-institute itself explicitly, and surmount the self-perpetuation of the instituted by showing itself capable of taking it up and transforming it according to its own exigencies and not according to the inertia of the instituted, to recognize itself as the source of its own alterity? These are the questions, the question of revolution, which not only go beyond the frontier of the theorizable but situate themselves right away on another terrain…the terrain of the creativity of history. [Cornelius Castoriades, cited by Dick Howard, The Marxian Legacy, 298-299.]
Say what, now?
Yeah, dense, isn’t it? But what is the simple meaning? To me, this goes back to Aristotle, at least. What is the good life? It is the life that is best for us to lead. How do we know it? How do we learn it? We learn it by watching others and forming habits. But what if the habits we form by watching others whom society says are worth imitating, what if that leads us to vice, not virtue? What if the whole society is corrupt? Is there any hope? Yes, because although moral virtue is very important, there is more to being a human than moral virtue. There is what Aristotle calls intellectual virtue, which is being able to see what is—even past the habits and practices and institutions of our own society. With those intellectual virtues, we always have access to the other, to the unexpressed, to the not-now visible possibilities. Indeed, this goes further back, to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” in which the prisoner somehow slips his bonds (but how?) and gets out of the darkness of illusion and can see what is in its truth. But the prisoner does not—cannot—live in this “realm” because he is human. He needs his institutions in order to live. Those institutions make life possible AND impossible at the same time. To say this in a formula: I am in society, but not wholly of it. I carry my alterity with me. I need the bonds of identitary logic to live AND I am always more and other than how that logic “identifies” me, how it turns me into a (mere) identity.
Perhaps that goes even further back to the very edge of thought: the many and the one, identity and difference, analysis and synthesis.
Indeed, it does. The truth is in the middle and the margin, in the in-between and at the edges.
But is what you claimed, right? Is what you just tried to say simple?
Yes. It is just that simple.
You know what your problem is?
No, but I’m sure you’re about to tell me.
I am, indeed. Your problem is that you are incoherent. Or inconsistent. Or inconsistently coherent. Or something like that.
Well, I’m glad you cleared that all up for me.
I’ll demonstrate: What are you, conservative or liberal?
Do I have to be one or the other?
See what I mean?
Isn’t there a third (or fourth) choice?
I’m a nonarchist.
No you’re not.
Yes I am.
Nope. That’s just a word you made up because you simply couldn’t decide what you are.
A nonarchist believes in no first principles (archai). He differs from the anarchist in that the anarchist thinks there are no first principles. But that is his first principle, so to speak. It is not mine. I believe in no first principles, not even that one.
Isn’t that just saying there are no first principles?
No, it’s not the same. The reason anarchy is so often tied to violence is that the anarchist is usually a true believer. He believes that whatever is going on is bad and that blowing it up is a moral imperative. I do not believe that.
All anarchist are bomb-throwing maniacs?
No. In fact, I very much object to that characterization because it’s the one used by The Powers-That-Be to make anarchistic thinking seem “beyond the pale.” However, because there are in fact anarchist principles, it is possible for there to be true believers, and true believers can be very dangerous.
Is non-archy like casuistry? Are you a casuist?
Okay, yes, I suppose I am. I think there are only events, cases, and that each case has something that uniquely distinguishes it from every other case.
You know the knock on casuistry, right?
Something about inconsistency or incoherency or even hypocrisy…something like that?
Right, well the thing is, if you aren’t a casuist, then you think there are real governing patterns, forms, principles, or whatever, that take precedence over persons, places, things, and times. To me, that is hypocritical—literally, not critical enough. For the sake of your blessed consistency (the hobgoblin of tiny minds, it has been said), you are willing to neglect or deny the uniqueness of persons, places, things, and times. I am unwilling to be so sub-critical.
But if you nonarchist casuists were to win the day, then would we be absolute relativists? And if we were, wouldn’t morality go right out the window? All we’d be left with is “what’s right for me is right for me, and what’s right for you is right for you and there is nothing we can really say to each other.”
Do you think so? I don’t. Or at least, I don’t think it would turn out like that. I think we human beings have a lot in common—a whole lot, in fact—even though each of us is unique.
Well, then, are these commonalities the first principles of ethics?
Not like some people think. You can’t just read off these commonalities and develop an algorithm to solve all our problems once and for all. But we are real people with real commonalities in real situations, and from within them we can try—no guarantees—to solve our problems. Or maybe even find that what we think are problems really aren’t problems at all.
What do you mean?
Well, for instance, “religion” seems to have been a longstanding problem for us human beings. But maybe it doesn’t have to be.
If we didn’t have to be so consistent and coherent and all that, maybe each person could be religious (or not) in his own way without that seeming such a scandal to others. And, at the same time, the person living out this “religious” expression won’t be so damn certain (coherent, consistent) that he lets it bring him misery or to wreak misery on others.
That’s a lot to hope for.
I am a religious man.
You are a nonarchist, casuist, religious man.
Yes, for starters. I am also a man who likes pizza. Consistently, you’ll be pleased to know.
There’s hope for you….
I’m all about hope!
It happened again on Monday. We were talking in class about the importance of the body in Christian theology — not in any rigorous way, but I was pointing out that many Christians think that when you die you go to heaven and stay there forever. But then what about the Creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”? If the body is the principle of individuation, then you will need a body (perhaps a “glorified” body) in order to be you. According to Christian tradition, dying and going to heaven is not the end of the story.
Anyway, prior to this discussion students were giving their opinions as to what happens after you die. Some said that you will come back in another body, perhaps even as an animal. Some thought you would come back, but only as some other human being. But, as usual, most thought when you die (if you’re good) you go to heaven forever. By the way, only a few thought some other people (bad people) would go to hell forever.
Then a couple of students asked me what I thought about it. As usual, I punted. I said, “Who cares what I think? I’m just some guy.” They insisted. I replied that I have a certain power relation to them, and that if I were to give my views either (a.) students would believe it was true because it was my view; (b.) students would not believe it, but would regurgitate it on the test in the hopes of getting a better grade by appearing to believe what I believe; (c.) students would just fixate on my beliefs to the detriment of our learning the views of some really important thinkers. One student, however, asked, “Well how about (d.), simple curiosity?”
All this brought to mind a piece in Chronicle of Higher Education by my good friend, Paul Sracic, entitled, “Teach Only What You Know,” (10/11/2007). Sracic, a professor and Chair of the department of political science at Youngstown State University, was asked during one of his government classes whom he intended to vote for in the presidential election. Sracic refused to answer. Indeed, he took the fact that his students did not have any idea who he supported to be a sign that he was doing his job well. He said the college catalogue description of the course didn’t say anything about his sharing his political views, and, besides, he was no more qualified to answer that question (as an academic matter) than anyone else in any other department. He argued that in cases where knowledge (as opposed to opinion) was available, then we ought to consult the person(s) holding that expertise. But in cases where such knowledge is lacking, let everyone decide for himself. No one is an expert.
When we are all equally ignorant, we might as well vote.
His piece elicited a great deal of commentary and criticism. While many applauded his professionalism, many others took him to task for cheating his students of something they came to college particularly to get: the informed views of teachers and scholars who’ve done some real legwork in the questions that we all face. Students, the critics argued, are not sheep, and they will not mindlessly ape their teachers. Why not tell them your views? They asked.
The more intense criticism tried to make analogies: What if they asked you your view of torture? Would you simply coyly demure? Is there not a moral imperative attached to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom? And would it not be a moral failure to refrain from making moral judgments (no matter how unpopular).?
I may have mentioned that I am no fan of the comments section of websites. However, back in the day I felt compelled to toss in my two-cents’ worth on the matter. I have reproduced those comments here, but the gist is that, while I am sympathetic to Sracic’s concerns, the university – especially in the humanities – has lost its way in exploring the great questions of existential and spiritual concern in its obsession with “professionalism.” Being a professional is important, of course, but can we professors not put ourselves as well as our learning into our work?
So today, I had to decide what to say – if anything – to my students who I put off on Monday. I was not sure what I was going to do even up to the point I opened my mouth to begin the class. But I told them about Paul, about my response, and how I did not think I was consistent with my otherwise deeply held views. I then asked them if they would like me to share my opinions about such things as life after death and other questions about which no one has any expertise – certainly not I.
For the most part, they said yes they would. One student preferred that I did not because he had had an experience with another prof who always gave his (or her?) personal view, and then students who got bad scores on papers chalked it up to their disagreement with the prof. Another student pointed out that, in effect, they trust me not to be like that. I think I can say that they really can trust me on that point.
So I told them what I think. And now, with the same trepidation, I will tell you, dear reader: What I think is both (a.) that when you die, you’re dead and (b.) that Kellie (my wife) and I will be together somehow forever and ever, that we are far more connected than physics can explain or comprehend. I have no reason to think people come back. I believe that each and every human that has ever lived is unique, a singularity as Caputo would say, and when we die the world – the cosmos – loses something. I don’t keep a scorecard for beliefs vs. knowledge. I know I don’t know what happens after death. The question for me is whether the answer to that question matters now, in this life, and if so, how? But, for what it’s worth (and it’s not much), I told them (and now you) what I think.
They asked me my religion. I told them: “Heinz 57 Varieties.” They asked me if I go to church. I told them I go to brunch or go birding. They asked my why I had trouble with the RC church. I told them I felt abandoned when I went through a crisis. They asked me if I am an atheist. I told them that I am definitely not, but that I usually act like one. They asked me a bunch of questions. I do not mean to say that anyone was truly prying, and I did not in any way “over-share,” as they say. But for a few minutes I did feel unusually vulnerable.
I found it was a bit difficult for me at times. Maybe that’s because I hide behind my persona too much. Maybe it is because I know that as today’s discussion was oriented, it was not the purpose of our class meeting. Maybe I was uncomfortable not knowing (and exhibiting that non-knowing). Maybe I didn’t like my own views, or didn’t like that I couldn’t articulate them well or explain them satisfactorily.
These kinds of questions, as you can easily see, are either personal questions (and not really part of the curriculum at all) or broadly philosophical questions that cannot be managed in soundbites. One student – one of my very good ones (in a whole class-full of very good ones) – noted that the questions raised today were “too big” and would be better discussed “over coffee.” She is right, of course. Good philosophical method dictates one should try to analyze the big questions into more manageable bites and certainly to give arguments for those views. I freely admitted I had no good arguments (although, maybe I have “arguments” of some sort…).
I will never be the guy who comes into class and wastes a lot of time talking about sports or my hobbies or spouting off my political views (I have a blog for that!). But I suppose if in the future I am asked for my opinions about such things as I usually refrain from addressing, I should consider answering if there is some way to tie it into what we’re doing (as I tried to do a couple of times even in today’s session). I think it might help deepen the trust relation that I am fortunate to have with my students. I had to trust them, or I would not have had that kind of conversation with them today.
Every class I collected a notecard from the students which includes their understanding of the key points of the day’s class and a question or two that arose for them. I read today’s notecards with particular attention. I would say that the overwhelming majority of students who offered their opinion of the day’s session as a whole indicated that it was a positive experience.
I am grateful to them, and I would not want to cheat them in any way.
Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students – even himself.
[Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 63, trans. Walter Kaufmann]